Love Across Our Differences: A Christian Non-Negotiable
I love that I get to be the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church for many reasons. In more ways than I can count, our community and its four diverse congregations is a wonderful, sometimes messy representation of God’s Kingdom, and a rich manifestation of the aroma of Jesus. In a world of outrage, judgment, fear, posturing and caricature, I especially appreciate how our community embodies love across the lines of difference.
The following words from our longer vision statement tells the story best:
We will celebrate our diversity—opening our lives and hearts and homes to sinners and saints, doubters and believers, seekers and skeptics, prodigals and Pharisees, Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians, young and old, married and unmarried, leaders and followers, famous and infamous, our own races and other races, happy and depressed, helpers and those who need help, creative and corporate, conservative and liberal, American and international, affluent and bankrupt, public and private and home schooled—and all others who enter our doors. We will aspire to expand our ‘us’ by carefully listening to, learning from, and being shaped by one another’s unique experiences and perspectives.
I guess you could say that we are advocates, as much as we are able, for the gospel virtues of diversity and *real* tolerance.
My friend and long time mentor, Tim Keller, says that *real* tolerance does not require us to abandon our convictions. Real tolerance, he says, is revealed by how our convictions lead us to treat people who disagree with us. Tolerance that ‘tolerates’ only people who think, believe, vote, and live like us is not tolerance. It is covert prejudice at best, and thinly veiled hatred at worst. It is scorn covered with a mask of insincere niceness.
For the Christian witness to be taken seriously in the West’s increasingly pluralistic and secular environment, Christians must learn the art of:
- Staying true to our beliefs and convictions;
- Genuinely loving, listening to, and serving those who do not share our beliefs and convictions; and
- Consistently doing both at the same time.
If we do not value this combination, rather than being a light TO the culture, we will risk becoming products OF the culture. If we cling zealously to our convictions but choose not to love, listen to, and serve those who do not share them, we become products of a moralistic culture, which is not gospel culture. If we do the opposite, we become products of a capitulating and compromising culture, which is likewise not gospel culture.
Truth without grace is unwelcoming and shaming.
Grace without truth is cowardly and enabling.
Only by combining grace AND truth, love AND law, compassion AND conviction, kindness AND a call to repentance, can the gospel be faithfully embodied.
An effective Christian witness—especially when the prevailing tone in virtually all public dialogue is outrage, not civility—depends on Christians adopting a tone that is counter-culture to this norm. This counter-culture must start first in the household of God, among believers themselves, and in such a way that even Jews and Gentiles not only put up with each other but do the hard and faithful work of loving each other as family. Because we are united to Christ, we are also united to each other. It is good to live into that reality. It is a false expression of faith, and taking the Lord’s name in vain, to treat each other otherwise.
As Don Carson has aptly said, Christians are “a natural band of enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.” Our union with Christ affords us with the power and privilege of forging community with each other in ways that the world does and cannot.
Then, together, we become able and honored to turn our faces outward to love those who do not believe or behave as we do, not in spite of our faith but because of it. A unique mark of any true Christian person, community, or tribe is that they noticeably love not only their own kind, but even their enemies. Jesus went first, then the Apostles, and now us. As Jesus said in the greatest sermon ever preached, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven…If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”
A former Harvard chaplain offers a vision that sounds similar:
“The divide between Christians and atheists is deep . . . I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with atheists, Christians and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do. . . . My hope is [to] help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversation across lines of difference.”
The chaplain’s name is Chris Stedman. He is an atheist who also identifies as “queer,” and yet whose perspective and tone notably mirror the perspective and tone into which Christ, our King and Savior and Elder Brother and “Chaplain” extraordinaire, calls us into as Christians.
Several examples from Scripture affirm Stedman’s sentiment: The Israelite spies came alongside Rahab, a working prostitute, to advance the work of God’s Kingdom. Joseph served alongside Pharaoh, Nehemiah alongside Artaxerxes, and Daniel alongside Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus, a Jewish male, received a drink from a promiscuous Samaritan woman. Paul, a Messianic Jew, affirmed secular poets and philosophers as he quoted their works from memory to Athenian intellectuals. All these were faithful, non-compromising people of faith living in deeply secular, pluralistic environments who prioritized both grace and truth.
Contested issues like partisan politics, the refugee crisis, human sexuality, and racial and economic justice should be engaged in a way and with a tone that builds relational bridges instead of burning them. Inviting others to belong and journey with us even before they believe with us or agree with us is a deeply Christian thing to do. So is breaking bread with people and welcoming them into relationship, WHETHER OR NOT they ever end up agreeing with us. Do we understand this or how to make it real in our lives?
Jesus shows us the way.
When the rich ruler dismissed Jesus’ invitation to come follow Him, Jesus looked at the man as he walked away in unbelief and loved him. And as the man walked away from Jesus, the man was sad. Not angry or hostile or feeling judged . . . but sad.
Wherever love dominates the environment, it’s no condemnation first and ethics after that. With Jesus, love establishes the environment for the morality conversation. It is not our repentance that leads to God’s kindness, but God’s kindness that leads to our repentance. After nearly three decades of vocational ministry, I have never met a person who bowed the knee to Jesus because a Christian scolded them about their ethics. Have you?
Gandhi, who claimed that his humanitarian ethic was chiefly inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus, chose Hinduism over Christianity. Why? Because of how poorly he was treated, and how much he felt judged, by the (deeply misguided) Christians that he knew. Chillingly and famously, Gandhi is reported to have said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” In a climate of hostility and ‘us against them,’ we need to start working for a different narrative.
In contrast to the above, over the years I have met hundreds, if not thousands, of people who fell in love with Jesus because a Christian or community of Christians loved, served, lifted a burden, and befriended them. When Jesus said to let our light shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven, He envisioned something more like this. He envisioned people being drawn irresistibly to Him, not in spite of Christians, but because of them.
Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times writes, “Unfairly, the pompous hypocrites get the headlines and often shape public attitudes about religion, but there’s more to the picture. Remember that on average religious Americans donate far more to charity and volunteer more than secular Americans do.”
It would be remarkable if more secular thinkers like Nicholas Kristof began saying that the pompous, hypocritical caricatures of Christians are unfair, and that believers were actually doing more to create a loving, just, and beautiful world than anybody else. It would be something else if more secular thinkers started to take note of good works done in the world and for the world in Jesus’ name. One way we can strive to make that hope a reality is to give the world more of these lovely, life-giving things to talk about. Let’s let more of the light of Christ shine through us, more love and good deeds, more service and less self—so that, as the apostle Paul wrote—the world will not be able to find anything bad to say about us . . . and especially about our beloved Jesus (Titus 2:8).
There is perhaps no better time than now for Christians to re-discover, and to re-engage our hearts with the truth that was first embodied by Jesus himself:
The more ‘conservative’ we are in our belief that every single word of Scripture is true, the more ‘liberal’ we will be in our love toward our neighbors who are near, especially those who have need. The more resolved we are to walk the narrow path, the wider our embrace will be to a poor, sorrowful, weary, wounded, sick, sore and lonely world. Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. He invited lepers, tax collectors, gluttons, drunks, prostitutes and Pharisees into his company. To follow him truly, so must we.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and love somebody, shall we?
This essay is an adapted excerpt from Jesus Outside the Lines.